HARTFORD ‚Äď There are very few parallels between a golf course and a battlefield, and that‚Äôs exactly what makes it an ideal setting for veterans to heal.
For the last six weeks, about 20 disabled veterans were bused from the Newington VA Hospital to Goodwin Golf Course in Hartford once a week, just to enjoy themselves. The Professional Golfers‚Äô Association‚Äôs charitable arm REACH provided free golf instruction to the group through its HOPE program, short for ‚ÄėHelping Our Patriots Everywhere.‚Äô
Goodwin Head Golf Professional Joe Mentz was honored to lead the Thursday morning visits. A 12-year veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard, Mentz said the cause was close to his heart.
‚ÄúSome of these guys may not have gotten out at all this week, aside from today,‚ÄĚ he said on a recent Thursday, as Bill Long lined up his shot.
For Long, standing on his own two feet while straddling the ball, club in hand, is a rare treat.
‚ÄúI‚Äôm in a wheelchair all the time,‚ÄĚ he revealed. ‚ÄúThis allows me to play.‚ÄĚ
PGA HOPE provided him with a SoloRider adaptive golf cart, with a seat that swivels out and tilts down towards the ground, while keeping him strapped in comfortably.
This is a game-changer for the US Army vet, who developed Parkinson‚Äôs disease after exposure to Agent Orange in Southeast Asia.
For many veterans, adaptive sports provide their first exposure to physical activity since returning home.
‚ÄúIf we can get them out of the house, having a good time, moving around and meeting new friends, it‚Äôs pretty gratifying,‚ÄĚ Mentz pointed out.
Then there‚Äôs James Norman, who was all smiles behind the wheel of his golf cart.
‚ÄúI love this program,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúWhether you‚Äôre a beginner or have some knowledge of the game, these instructors are patient, knowledgeable and they take their time to teach you.‚ÄĚ
Norman, who comes to the Newington VA from his home in Rocky Hill, served in the US Navy during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
‚ÄúI was there when we picked up the first astronaut,‚ÄĚ he said.
Some of the veterans would rather not talk about their service to our country, especially while playing a game of golf. They have a range of physical and cognitive challenges, including Traumatic Brain Injury, amputation, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PGA instructors are trained to work with them. All volunteer their time.
Middlefield resident Anne Begin was nervous her first day on the course because she had never held a golf club in her hands before. A few weeks later, she was hitting like a pro.
‚ÄúThey made it easy,‚ÄĚ Begin said. ‚ÄúI love being outside and I love the smell of the grass.‚ÄĚ
After three weeks, veterans competed in a drive, chip and putt contest to showcase their skills. On the sixth and final Thursday, they enjoyed a celebratory lunch after coming off the course, and went home with ‚Äúgraduation cards‚ÄĚ affording them golf-related benefits throughout the state.
‚ÄúThis program is so much bigger than the efforts we‚Äôre taking on Thursday mornings for a few weeks,‚ÄĚ said Mentz. ‚ÄúWe want to make sure these men and women have the resources, support, and ability to continue their healing process through the game of golf as well as through the people they meet here.‚ÄĚ
Last year 1,500 veterans participated in PGA HOPE nationwide. The goal this year is to introduce over 2,000 new veterans to the program.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs wonderful,‚ÄĚ said Shelton resident Mario Bonetti, who just completed his six weeks at Goodwin. ‚ÄúI hope to continue playing golf on a regular basis,‚ÄĚ he added. ‚ÄúI‚Äôm really enjoying it.‚ÄĚ
PGA CT Tournament Operations Director Dennis Dungee was impressed with Goodwin‚Äôs course, where 27 holes allow veterans flexibility and space as they play.
‚ÄúWe‚Äôll definitely be back next year,‚ÄĚ Dungee said. ‚ÄúOur hope is to grow the program and reach more veterans.‚ÄĚ
If you‚Äôre a disabled veteran who wants to sign up for PGA HOPE, contact Dungee at DDungee@PGAHQ.com.
Erica Drzewiecki can be reached at 860-801-5097 or firstname.lastname@example.org.